Debuts by authors Abi Daré, Okechukwu Nzelu and Derek Owusu, published by Sceptre, Dialogue Books and Merky Books respectively, have been shortlisted for the £10,000 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize for a first novel.
The books, according to the National Centre of Writing newly administering the prize, "grapple with questions of identity and belonging as their young protagonists navigate the maze of modern-day life" and explore issues such as class difference, faith versus secular life, and the creation of new forms of family.
Daré is shortlisted for The Girl with the Louding Voice (Sceptre), following 14-year-old Adunni, a Nigerian girl, already a wife and servant, who is relentless in her quest to attain an education. Preti Taneja, chair of the judges, called it "a virtuosic study of female loss, determination, and of the subversive potential of words", adding: "it magnificently reveals how language constructs us as humans. With immense skill, Daré creates an irresistible energy and powerfully sustains it on every page."
Nzelu is shortlisted for The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney (Dialogue Books), the story of a half-Nigerian teenager, Nnenna, living in modern-day Manchester with her white single mother Joanie, as approaching womanhood she begins to question her identity, seeking to connect with her Igbo-Nigerian heritage. Taneja said the book "offers the rare gift of writing that is both poignant and very funny. From race to religion to sexuality, nothing is off-limits in this nuanced celebration of contemporary families, told with great compassion and verve."
Owusu is shortlisted for That Reminds Me (Merky Books), the first novel on Stormzy's new imprint. A coming-of-age story also, it is a semi-autobiographical tale of a boy called K, who is fostered as a very young child and grows up in the countryside. At age 11, K is suddenly returned to his birth family and to the very different context of working-class British Ghanaian life in 1990s Tottenham. "The traumatised fragments of That Reminds Me weave myth with taught observation, juxtaposing violent reality and profound love in moving, surprising sentences," Taneja said. "A groundbreaking work of sheer grace and raw honesty that demands – and rewards concentration."
Taneja–a former winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize herself for We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press) in 2018–was joined on the panel of judges by Sonia Sodha, chief lead writer at The Observer and writer Sinéad Gleeson. Collectively they are tasked with finding the novel they believe is most deserving of being designated the best debut novel of the last 12 months.
Taneja commented on the shortlist selection in full: "These three outstanding debuts approach narrative form in very different and exhilarating prose, each mining the possibilities of language to give exceptional voice to unforgettable characters. From Ghanaian story myths to Nigerian patriarchy; from the violence within Cambridge’s ivory towers to the bonds of London’s streets and the longed for liberation of a night out in Manchester’s gay village, each writer pays careful attention to the nuances of speech between people of different generations, cultures and class and succeeds in making worlds we do not want to leave. These novels are striking, intimate studies of bodies in flux and transit through our linked histories; they show us how to seek new families and ways of being whole. They stand as powerful testimonials to individual and collective survival against institutional violence, and the current deprivations of our world."
The Desmond Elliott Prize is now the flagship in the NCW's Early Career Awards portfolio, a new year-round platform of support and mentorship, alongside financial assistance for exceptional early career writers. This Early Career Awards portfolio also includes the University of East Anglia (UEA) New Forms Award, worth £4,000, for "an innovative and daring new voice in fiction", and the Laura Kinsella Fellowship, also worth £4,000, to recognise an exceptional writer who has experienced limiting circumstances. The shortlistees for the UEA New Forms Award are Taylor Beidler, Michael Salu and James Smart. The shortlistees for the Laura Kinsella Fellowship are Salli Hansell, K Patrick and Michelle Perkins. All the winners will benefit from a tailored programme of support from the National Centre for Writing, supported by Arts Council England.
Peggy Hughes, programme director at the National Centre for Writing, said: "We’re delighted to reveal the shortlisted names for the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Laura Kinsella Fellowship and the UEA New Forms Award: a hugely talented, innovative and exciting set of writers. Alongside our suite of Early Career Awards, thanks to the support of Arts Council England we are creating packages of resources designed to help anybody embarking on the thrilling and consuming act of writing fiction. Advice and camaraderie are priceless and vital to writers on their journey to publication and recognition, and we hope and expect that these resources will help pave the path for future prize-winners."
The winners of all three awards will be announced on 2nd July.
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